McEnroe Farm is a 1,200-acre organic farm in the Hudson Valley of New York state. Starting out life as a dairy farm in 1953, it transitioned to raise organic Angus and Hereford beef cattle in the 1990s adding vegetable and compost production operations in 2000, as well as poultry, pigs, and sheep raising. It has been certified organic for 25 years.
I met Erich McEnroe during a tour of Dutchess County and caught up with him a few weeks later to find out more about the challenges the farm faces and how it views new technology.
What are the main challenges you face at each stage of the growing season?
Organic farming has its own challenges compared to conventional farming, but some of our biggest are around insects, fungus, weeds, and pests in general.
At harvest time, and all the time for that matter, getting qualified labor to do the work is a challenge. We do an internship process and also have some temporary labor that are family members of other employees who can sometimes step in and help out during busy seasons. We get whoever we can throughout the neighborhood. The problem is that qualified people want more money each year, while what we can sell our product for stays the same.
Fifteen years ago, we were getting $36 for a case of organic lettuce; today it’s still $36, but we’re paying our most qualified workers close to $20 an hour compared to between $6 and $10 an hour 15 years ago.
Why has the price of organic food not increased? Is it because organic acreage has increased in general?
Yes, there is more organic acreage, but also Americans are used to cheap food. With new technology, yields have also gone up in conventional but also in organic farming with new, better seeds and fertilizers, so that keeps prices low too.
Are there any technologies that could alleviate challenges you have on the farm?
Yes, there are, but we are not at a scale that could afford them. When I look at a cultivator that can take weeds out of the field, it costs $130k — so I’ve gotta sell a lot of cases of lettuce at $36 to pay for that! In the Northeast, we can’t scale up like our Californian competitors can.